An open letter from two U of A PhD students resigning from the U of A after violent sweep of anti-genocide protest camp

To Bill Flanagan, the University of Alberta Board of Governors*, and the Administration of the University of Alberta.

We, the writers of this open letter, are both Métis people pursuing our PhDs at the University of Alberta. In our time as graduate students, we have held leadership roles in our faculty’s Graduate Student Association and have acted as both official and unofficial supports for our peers, helping them navigate the University’s academic and labour processes to be successful. We have further supported both faculty members and undergraduate students in our roles as Research and Teaching Assistants. We have also supported our faculty by developing, contributing to, and teaching new courses geared to both University students and to the broader public. And we have supported the University by producing our own academic research and writing, representing the University at conferences, public presentations, guest lectures, and within the Métis community in Alberta and beyond.

Throughout our years at the University, we have been more than willing to give our time, labour, tuition dollars, and cultural and academic knowledge to an institution that claims to have a commitment to decolonization, justice, and building meaningful relationships with marginalized communities.

For months we have watched, from our screens, the atrocities being committed against the people of Palestine: families buried under the wreckage of their own homes, children carrying pieces of their siblings in bloody backpacks to what few hospitals remain in Gaza, people testifying to their terrible experiences in Israeli torture facilities, parents begging for money to escape with their babies out of Rafah before Israel’s next refugee camp bombing. Every day, our hearts break as we witness this unspeakable colonial violence. Yet every day we are inspired by the unbreakable spirit of resistance of the Palestinian people in the face of this genocide.

As Indigenous Studies students and researchers, the commonalities between Israel's current actions and Canada's past ones are unmistakable, as are the responsibilities that the University holds to do what it can to end this genocide.

As otipêyimisowak, the People Who Own Themselves, we deeply understand the unconquerable drive for freedom and self-determination that Palestinians have shown for decades. Nearly 150 years ago, our ancestors took up arms against Canadian forces — military and settler — to defend our homelands, our lifeways, and our relations from colonial dispossession. Decades of violent repression, stifling neglect, and state-administered hardship followed. We now live under colonial occupation.

A protest sign made by one of the authors at the People's University for Palestine anti-genocide protest camp that was formerly in the U of A quad. 

It is within this colonial context that the University of Alberta came to, and continues to exist on Métis and Papaschase Cree land. It is also within this context that we strove to pursue our doctoral studies, to utilize our access to the colonizer’s ivory tower and its resources to serve our community and our ongoing struggle for liberation and self-determination.

Inspired by the brave actions of Gazans, of Palestinians, of students around the world, and of our ancestors, we joined with students, staff, and faculty to demand the University divest from Israel and the corporations and institutions that are feeding the violence in Palestine. The People’s University for Palestine gave us hope that we could, alongside the University, help to end the violence to which we both bear witness and contribute with our tuition, academic work, and knowledge production.

We had hope.

One of us was present at the People’s University the evening before the EPS’ violence: We (the People’s University) observed Shabbat, we painted and coloured, crocheted, and sat in circles, sharing food and stories. No walkways were obstructed, pallets were removed when we were told they were a fire hazard. The encampment was the image of a peaceful, loving community in protest. Our demands? 

  • Disclose institutional and financial investments with Israeli institutions and all companies financially complicit in the occupation, and thus the current genocide of Palestinians;
  • Divest from complicit companies and all such investments;
  • Defend the right to protest by giving amnesty to any and all participants of this encampment;
  • Declare via an immediate statement its condemnation of this genocide and call on the Canadian government to end all military contracts with Israel.

Two days is all it took for the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Police Service to decide it was time to brutally clear the encampment; two people arrested, one seriously injured, and one more in the hospital. One of us lives thousands of kilometers from amiskwacîwâskahikan, and as a survivor of police brutality (as are many Indigenous people) could only watch in horror as police slammed their batons into and shot “less lethal” ammunition at unarmed protestors. Protestors were harmed because they had the nerve to try and help end a genocide or, at the very least, keep our tuition and our school from funding the genocide in Gaza. 

The University chose to see the protest as adversarial when it was a call to work together to do what is right under international law, in accordance with fundamental human decency, and in alignment with the values of decolonization and good relations that the institution claims to hold.

Asking you, the University administrators, to divest from genocide was only one option available to concerned students, as it is ultimately our tuition that funds your investments — in whole or in part. The University of Alberta has demonstrated that it is so committed to funding genocide that it will use violence against its own community to protect that commitment. This is unconscionable, and we cannot continue to be complicit in genocide by providing our time, labour, and money to this institution. If the University is so intent on investing in genocide that its administration will turn state violence against us, then we have no choice but to cease to provide you with our money or our labour to invest.

This is an open letter to inform the President, the Board of Governors, and the Administration that, because of its actions on the morning of May 11, 2024, and its inaction every day since October 7, 2023, we are withdrawing from the doctoral program in Indigenous Studies at the University of Alberta. We both had every intention to build our careers within academia, but the actions of the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary (and the no less harmful inaction of every other University in this country with similar investments) have made this goal repulsive to us; impossible to pursue without losing ourselves and rejecting our own values and those of our ancestors. What the University has done, and what it has refused to do, speaks more truthfully about its values and purpose than any statement from the President.

As people of conscience and integrity, we can no longer contribute to the maintenance of this rotten institution, a system of education that is not merely complicit in but strives to reproduce colonial violence on our lands and around the world. 

Know however that we, Indigenous peoples everywhere, will outlast the University. We will outlast the colonizer, wherever and whoever they are. And all Indigenous peoples, everywhere, will be free. From the River to the Sea.

Signed, a former University of Alberta doctoral student and a former candidate, both ashamed alumni.

​​*Kate Chisholm, Guy Bridgeman, Haseeb Arshad, Chris Ashdown, Zarina Bhambhani, Heather Bruce, Stephanie Dicki, Peggy Garrittty, Janice MacKinnon, Sett Policicchio, Thomas Ross, Margot Ross-Graham, Rakesh Saraf, Dillini Vethanayagam, Paul Whittaker, Kate Young, Lillian Zenari, Todd Gilchrist, Brad Hamdon, John Lemieux, Elan MacDonald, Aminah Fayek, Verna Yiu, Juli Zinken.